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Thursday, March 31, 2011

AMERICAN MADNESS (1932)

Frank Capra was ‘on his game’ long before IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT/’34 brought him Oscar’s Seal-of-Approval, as in this classic Depression-era story about a big city bank that’s run by the forward-thinking Walter Huston. He’s a man who hires his staff & makes loans based on character not collateral; who wants his assets out in the community, not lining the pockets of his ultra-conservative board. But a wayward wife, an employee with a criminal record, an ‘inside’ robbery job and the ensuing run on the bank are about to test him to the limit. Many of the trademark characters & plot twists associated with Capra are already in place here, largely thanks to Robert Riskin’s beautifully dovetailed script carpentry & his way with a quip. Yet withal the period details, the concerns of capitalism at the crossroads are often shockingly contemporary. But it’s Capra’s technical wizardry that truly lights this up. Suddenly, the cobwebs of early Talkie sludge are swept away, replaced with a new dynamic pace in editing, fluid camera work & dialogue that would become the default American standard. (An infidelity subplot holds to the old pace, looking slow & artificial next to the rest of the film.) Capra gets almost magical perfs from a great cast. How’d he do it @ little Columbia Studios? Sharp, funny, modern, fat-free, tough stuff; and physically gorgeous in a mint print/DVD (Premiere Capra @ Columbia) that does real justice to Joseph Walker’s glistening b&w lensing. Great Capra, great Americana, great cultural history. Essential stuff.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Listen up to hear the last names of the ‘bad loans’ the board wants Huston to call in. An Eye-talian, a Hebe & a Mick, in the argot of the day. Audiences would have picked right up on the WASP prejudices Capra & Riskin were highlighting.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (1966)

This Cold-War farce still earns its laughs. The plot is unusually strong for the genre, even believable: Soviet sub runs aground off a small New England island and the panicked residents think they’re being invaded. William Rose’s script hits a few dead spots of exposition, but he structures the multiple plotlines to great comic effect while helmer Norman Jewison keeps even the silliest bits grounded in just enough reality for them to take flight. And what a remarkably handsome film for a mid-60s comedy! Art director Robert Doyle had good practice for this coastal town after his Bodega Bay for Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS/’63; and there’s little process work or over-lighting in Joseph Biroc’s lensing. (Plus, that’s future helmer Hal Ashby doing the spot-on editing and getting lots of solid laughs with apt jump cuts. Something his own films could have used.) Carl Reiner is no more than pleasant as the nominal lead and Eva Marie Saint, is lovely, but underutilized as his wife, but everyone else is terrific. John Philip Law, as a Ruskie sailor, & Andrea Dromm, as a blonde American dream, make a charming/gorgeous couple while Jonathan Winters, Paul Ford, Theodore Bikel, toothsome Tessie O’Shay & a young runny-nosed Michael Pollard show off some serious comic chops. Character stalwarts Ben Blue & Doro Merande are just as winning. But the real standouts are the habitually undervalued Brian Keith as the town’s chief cop and Alan Arkin in a miraculous debut as the leader of the Russian shore party. You’d never have guessed anything but major star careers for the both of them. NOTE: Check out the trailer for Reiner & Arkin’s variation on Reiner & Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man shtick.

Monday, March 28, 2011

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953)

Writer/helmer Samuel Fuller rarely balanced his taste for abrupt violence & tabloid sentiment to better effect than he did in this blistering film noir about a subway pickpocket who accidentally gloms onto a Commie plot. Richard Widmark is just about perfect as a cynical ‘cannon’ who finds money & microfilm in Jean Peters purse and then has to choose between gaming the authorities who are tailing this innocent; scamming the Reds who are running her; or giving in to the romantic possibilities of a conscience. The whole cast feels just right here (a rare occurrence for Fuller), but Thelma Ritter all but steals the pic as a police snitch who sells tacky ties & criminal characters as insurance against a permanent plot in ‘Potter’s Field.’ There’s a dandy (and remarkably tough) series of violent collisions in the last act, but Widmark’s turn as Orpheus on the East River provides the heartfelt climax to the pic. (And what a lovely two-shot Fuller uses for Ritter & Widmark at a lunch-counter rendezvous.) Fuller acolytes will always opt for one of his more extreme films, but first-timers (and nonbelievers) will find no better entry point.

Friday, March 25, 2011

RED RIDING TRILOGY (2009)

RED RIDING : IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1973; 1980; 1983

Only the first film from this well reviewed trilogy lives up to the hype. The second & third add detail and help sort out the crisscross paths of civic corruption & serial killings up north in Yorkshire, U.K., but they smell of PBS Masterpiece Mystery, complete with no deductive reasoning or logic-driven investigating, but lots of regional accents as impenetrable as the pointlessly dim interiors. (Has The Beeb run out of light bulbs?) A pity since #2 features a variation on a favorite plot (underappreciated career sod finally gets a big case not because someone thinks he’s good, but because his employer wants an incompetent); and #3 has a lovely perf from Mark Addy as a slob-aholic lawyer who reluctantly figures the whole thing out. No, it’s only the initial film (quite watchable as a stand-alone) that comes fully alive. Without trying too hard to ape the look & production methods of ‘70s cinema, Julian Jarrold helms with a real feel for the period & the dark material. But he couldn’t have pulled it off without Andrew Garfield’s pitch-perfect perf as an investigating cub reporter who lets his growing mania for justice, and an unexpected jolt of love from a victim’s mother (Rebecca Hall), lead him beyond serial killer whodunit and straight into the systemically corrupt heart of darkness that is Yorkshire in The North. Cops, politicians, land developers, even the newspapers seem to be involved. It’s vile & violent territory we know from CHINATOWN/’74 and L. A. CONFIDENTIAL/’97. And RR: 1973 earns a niche not far below them.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

BAKUHA 3-BYO MAE / 3 SECONDS BEFORE EXPLOSION (1967)

With Criterion issuing the cream of the ‘60s actioners from Nikkatsu Studios, Kino-DVD is left with slim pickings like this mindless shoot-em-up, haphazardly helmed by Tan Ida. Akira Kobayashi (who’s a bit like Chow Yun-Fat) stars as an undercover government agent on the trail of a stash of gems & gold, missing since the end of WWII. Hideki Takahashi is also on the hunt as a rival agent, but these two soon join forces against a barrage of Yakuza gangs, German mobsters(!), and various independent operators. It’s a workable set up for dramatic mayhem, but the action & plotting are laughably arbitrary. Nothing adds up, and the action stuff plays out like James Bond gone Dada. (That makes it sound better than it is.) There’s fun in the KodaChrome look of it all, but it’s really not worth the effort. And to think this bland time-filler came out just as Nikkatsu was about to fire their great eccentric helmer Seijun Suzuki, proving that Japanese studio execs are just as dumb as their Hollywood counterparts.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Get your Nikkatsu Studios game on with YOUTH OF THE BEAST/’63; unmatchable pulp from Seijun Suzuki at his ‘pop’ best.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN (1967)

It’s all downhill once The Turtles finish the catchy title tune in this broadly played MAD MEN-era sex farce about the Joys of Infidelity. Walter Matthau, the sheepish husband of Inger Stevens, is tutored by randy Robert Morse, his more experienced pal, on the safe & respectful way to cheat on your wife. But the film’s big gimmick is having a bunch of famous comics make cameo appearances for each lesson. If only the skits were funny or stylish or hip or even surprising, but Frank Tarloff’s sketches wouldn’t make the cut on LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE. Jack Benny & Phil Silvers survive, they’re more or less indestructible, and Joey Bishop, of all people, gets the one funny bit. Go figure. Gene Kelly’s megging is coarser than it needs to be, with depth-free staging that his fancy camera tricks do little to hide. Yet, the basic idea was naughty enough to make this a commercial hit, big enough for Kelly to get HELLO, DOLLY! as his next gig. That pretty much finished him off.

CONTEST: Make the connection between this film and Frtiz Lang’s 1931 classic M to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: If you want to see Bobby Morse in full MAD MEN regalia, check out his signature role in Frank Loesser’s satirical musical HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS/’67. And you can see Matthau making the suburban sexual rounds for real in Richard Quine’s heartfelt STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET.’60 which stars Kirk Douglas & Kim Novak, both at their best.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

TIGER SHARK (1932)

Just two years after filming Sidney Howard’s THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED under Victor Sjöström (as A LADY TO LOVE/’30), Edward G. Robinson made this knock-off for Howard Hawks. And he’d have a third go at the basic storyline in Raoul Walsh’s MANPOWER/’41, with Marlene Dietrich & George Raft. (What a line-up of directors!) This is the best of the lot. Neither a primitive Talkie, nor awash with echt-Warners’ ‘house-style,’ it’s paradoxically more blunt and more delicate; made in that brief period when sound films got up on their feet, without yet yielding to the demands of a standardized ‘product.’ The well-worn story follows two pals, best friends on & off the job, who fall for the same down-on-her-luck gal. Since it’s the decent, homely guy who first spots her qualities, she marries the butter-and-egg man and hopes for the best. But secretly, she longs for the sexy best man; and the fever is catching. This iteration sets it all in the Portuguese community of coastal So. Cal. and throws in some eye-popping footage of commercial tuna fishing; a couple of gruesome shark attacks; and plenty of Hawksian ‘bromance’ for Eddie G. and his manly mate, Richard Arlen. (Though it’s nothing compared to the homoerotic currents running between Kirk Douglas & Dewey Martin in Hawks’ THE BIG SKY/’52.) And the little-known, underrated Rita Johann is just great as the girl who comes between them. She's a bit like Susan Sarandon, and worth checking out in THE MUMMY/’32 and in D. W. Griffith’s much maligned final pic, THE STRUGGLE/’31.

And take a moment for these unusual Lobby Cards with their hand-colored painterly look . (Click on them to enlarge.)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

SAN ANTONIO (1945)

This light-hearted Western was the tipping point for Errol Flynn @ Warners. But it made so much money, no one noticed at the time. Flynn plays a wronged man who hitches a ride with Music Hall performer Alexis Smith into San Antonio where a showdown looms with the real cattle rustlers. It’s not without action & shoot-outs, but this is Western-lite, a colorful lark, with plenty of music & comedy in the mix. But director David Butler, still new on the lot after a run of Bob Hope & Bing Crosby pics, is well off his game. The musical comedy tone often fights against the drama and the comic routines are mighty strained. (Florence Bates & S. Z. Sakall in labored shtick.) And what lousy editing all thru the pic, as if Butler hasn’t turned in the right angles. (Not helped here by the pudding-rich TechniColor on the current DVD edition which shows noticeable registration problems.) Flynn’s glory days, when Michael Curtiz & Raoul Walsh called the shots, are suddenly over. Now, hacks & journeyman like Butler, Vincent Sherman & Peter Godfrey are in charge as Flynn loses ground with every new release.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: She’s a good deal taller, but Alexis Smith really is a ringer for Jodie Foster in some shots. Wonder if Jodie used her as a model when she tried playing Western dress-up in MAVERICK/’94.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

WATCHMEN (2009)

Under Zach Synder’s heavy-handed helming, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbon’s much-acclaimed graphic novel comes off as a series of violent incidents looking for a plot. And when it shows up, it’s default James Bond; the one where a suave villain preps a nuclear attack, but makes it look like the USSR is doing it. Add in a gang of underutilized super heroes: tack on a morally dubious twist ending: trim it off with a reverse fillip (to set up a sequel); and bake. Or rather, nuke it. Things start well with a nifty montage that lays out an alternate potted-history to bring us up to 1985, but after that, Synder’s narrative instincts falter. His last film, ‘300,' was from a graphic novel one-fifth as long, and the added complexity defeats him. He covers everything up with buckets of massed effects, near visual quotes from famous pics, noise & CGI overkill; yet when he needs to block & shoot basic fight stuff, he’s all thumbs. (Watch some with the sound off to see how lame things get.) It’s certainly full of sound & fury, but the most memorable thing in here is the shifting blot on Rorschach’s knitted wool mask.

SCREWY THOUGHT(s) OF THE DAY: Patrick Wilson may get to play the one ‘regular-guy’ Super Hero, but he really should sue the film’s hair stylist. Jackie Earle Haley, playing the psychotic Rorschach, looks like the diseased love-child of Letterman announcer Alan Kalter. And then there’s poor, butt naked Billy Crudup. Forget his radiation overdose backstory, only prolonged abuse of steroids could account for the pecs & pecker.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK (2010)


Anyone who's seen LE PLAISIR/'51, Max Ophuls'superb adaptation of three Guy de Maupassant stories, will recall THE MASK. It’s the one about an old man who maintains the illusion of youth by wearing a smooth featureless mask as he frantically dances his nights (and his life) away at the Palais de la Danse. That pretty sums up the attitude of Stand-Up comedienne Joan Rivers in this highly effective documentary; she's still going for the brass ring at 75 & counting. After all these years (and all those cosmetic procedures), her life is more about staying in the chase then in getting a reward. (Though Joan explicitly says otherwise.) Especially when ‘youngsters’ like Kathy Griffin are taking your best club dates. It’d be nice if the filmmakers didn’t ask us to applaud Joan’s bravery in letting herself be seen in such a harsh light. But the portrait, both admirable and appalling, rings true. And, enough of the time, she’s pretty damn funny.

Monday, March 14, 2011

LE COMBAT DANS L’ILE (1962)

WARNING: THIS SQUIB CONTAINS SPOILERS !!

This exceptional debut from Nouvelle Vague helmer Alain Cavalier had to wait five decades for its limited art-house release in the States. Perhaps François Truffaut’s JULES ET JIM/’62 (which shares a leading man & a romantic triangle of free-spirited woman torn between two men) made it seem too familiar. A shame since any similarities are skin deep; if anything, this is the flip side to Truffaut’s blame-free lovers. And most of that blame goes to Jean-Louis Trintignant as the vile scapegrace scion of a wealthy industrialist & Romy Schneider as his brainless wife. He’s part of some ill-defined right-wing terrorist organization and is scheduled to play triggerman on a political assassination. But it’s a 'hit' that’s designed to fail. Trintignant’s shooting partner is merely using his radicalism & b&w outlook as part of a scam against his father’s business. (An American version would have focused on the political/industrial war games (think: THE PARALLAX VIEW/’74 or THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR/’76). But this is France, romance trumps politics.) Enter Henri Serre (Jim of JULES ET . . . ), Trintignant’s army pal who lives in the country. It’s a perfect spot to hide out, but Serre won’t condone violence and throws his old buddy out. But the wife stays and a romance blooms; Schneider even becomes intelligent! Then, when Trintignant sneaks back into the country, he demands satisfaction; a duel to the death! Well, it’s all a bit much, but goodness what gorgeous moviemaking from Cavalier. The compositions, pacing and Pierre Lhomme’s magnificent WideScreen b&w images show off a fully mature technique that leaves you wondering where Cavalier has been hiding. His Stateside releases remain frustratingly erratic, perhaps the brave new world of DVD rediscoveries will fill in some gaps.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Henri Serre is just great as the sympathetic manly intellectual. Yet, after this and JULES ET JIM, he never quite broke through to full stardom. Perhaps Jean-Paul Belmondo had a lock on all the broken nose New Wave leads.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

THE FURIES (1950)

This visually & thematically dark Western, from the Hal Wallis production unit @ Paramount, helped pull helmer Anthony Mann on to Hollywood’s A-list. It’s a distinctive work, but you can also tell that it was a job for hire. It’s taken from a Niven Busch novel that works overtime to uncover Greek tragedy in THE HOUSE OF JEFFORDS, but the unbalanced characters are more neurasthenic than chased by Gods or Furies. Barbara Stanwyck plays the willful daughter of ranch-owner Walter Huston (tremendous in his final role), but she’s about to lose everything. Dad’s got a new wife in mind (Judith Anderson); her longtime soulmate is being thrown off the ranch (Gilbert Roland, who’s just great); she’s fallen for a man who wants to tame her (hopelessly bland Wendell Corey); and the Jeffords are about to lose the ranch to the bankers. There’s incipient hysteria in the air with Stanwyck blasting hot & cold with no in-between setting. The whole film is something of a fever dream, a dark one with a coal-black palette featuring more silhouette shots than lenser Victor Milner used in the rest of his forty year career. But about two-thirds in, the elements start coming together as Stanwyck loses a friend and declares war against her dad. Things don’t exactly calm down, but the overstatement begins to ring true. Mann wouldn’t take things this far again until THE MAN FROM LARAMIE/’57, when he was better able to control it all.

INNER SANCTUM MOVIE SERIES (1943 - 45)


Universal, the House of Horror, couldn’t have been pleased with the successful poetic/psychological horror pics Val Lewton was producing for a pittance over @ RKO. So, they fired back with this series, based on the radio anthology show, all starring their fast-fading Werewolf, Lon Chaney, Jr.

  • First out was CALLING DR. DEATH/’43; bare bones stuff, even for Universal. Chaney’s a doctor who uses hypnosis, Patricia Morrison (later the original Kate of B’way’s KISS ME KATE) is the nurse he loves, and his wife is a murder victim. Staring at your radio would hold more visual interest.
  • Number two, WEIRD WOMAN/’44, is the best of the lot, it’s even got Elizabeth Russell, Cat Woman from Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton’s CAT PEOPLE/’42! They’ve bumped up the budget (look at the people milling about!) and the mix of voodoo & college backstabbing make for a tasty little treat. But did Universal really think college co-eds would swoon for Prof Chaney?
  • DEAD MAN’S EYES /’44 brings us back to bare bones production values with lots of master-shots covering entire scenes. And the story (Chaney tries to regain his sight with the eyes of the father-in-law he may have murdered) doesn’t have a surprise in it.
  • By the fourth title, THE FROZEN GHOST/’45 the plotting has become completely arbitrary and they’ve even dropped the goofy floating head in a crystal ball prologue. Chaney plays another hypnotist, but now it’s a stage act. He reads minds, or rather, his hypnotized subject does. (Huh?) But when one of his ‘volunteers’ dies onstage, Chaney suffers a nervous breakdown and goes to recover at the local Wax Museum. (Wha’?) Spooky lighting, a blonde docent with a mad pash on him, a high-strung wax sculptor; it’s the perfect spot for some R&R. At least, character actor Douglass Dumbrille has some fun as an off-beat detective and the ladies sport makeup & hair styles that look like the back of a Cadillac.
  • THE STRANGE CONFESSION/’45, isn’t really an INNER SANCTUM story at all, but a wanly produced tale of a chemist (Chaney) who refuses to bring a new drug to the market before it’s properly tested. Not so his boss, who wants it out in time for the flu season. Guess whose little boy catches the flu? Young Lloyd Bridges makes an enthusiastic lab pal, but this is a legit story that could have been developed into something better.
  • Finally, the deliciously titled PILLOW OF DEATH/’45 has the unhappily married Chaney longing for his cute young secretary. She’s the niece of a wealthy clan; in fact her aunt is . . . Auntie Em! Yep, that’s Clara Blandick playing a high society dame. When Chaney's wife turns up dead, Aunt Clara knows who to blame.
After this, Chaney was off the screen for two years. When he returned, he’d been demoted to supporting player for the rest of his long career. NOTE: There’s a Grade ‘Z’ indie pic titled INNER SANCTUM/’48 that isn’t part of this Universal series.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Just about any of the Val Lewton pics would be grand. THE LEOPARD MAN/’43 is a particular fave.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER (1952)

This ultra-smooth portmanteau pic is a pluperfect example of how to adapt Women’s Magazine Fiction to the big screen. Scripter Nunnally Johnson uses a gimmick to pull off his story structure, but it’s a great gimmick. Waiting out a flight delay on their way to L.A., four passengers, strangers in the night, share a brief, passing intimacy: a doctor with a secret past; a coarse novelty salesman with a million bad gags; a showgirl returning home after not cracking B’way; and a lawyer who’s fleeing the wife he can no longer trust. The Gimmick: the plane goes down and the sole survivor troops off to sequentially clean up all the unfinished business. Everybody’s near their best here: Gary Merrill & Michael Rennie are sympathetic & manly; Kennan Wynn is broadly annoying (priming the pump for his big transformation); Bette Davis, in a showy supporting role (Merrill was her hubby at the time), plays maudlin martyr . . . and triumphs; best of all, there’s Shelly Winters, intensely likable & dishy. Nunnally Johnson’s script is tougher & funnier than you expect in the genre as is Jean Negulesco’s clever, efficient helming. Dig those nifty transitions he & lenser Milton Krasner cooked up: fade-to-white dissolves for the straight storytelling flashbacks & reverse negative dissolves for the fibs. For once, the Fox trailer got it right, if you liked LETTER TO THREE WIVES/’49 or ALL ABOUT EVE/’50, you’ll probably like this more sentimental number.

CONTEST: Connect this film to Frank Capra’s IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT/’34 to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

Friday, March 11, 2011

OLDBOY (2004)

Inexplicably freed 15 years after being inexplicably kidnapped, a man seeks out what’s left of his life, the reason behind his imprisonment and revenge against . . . whom? That’s the set up on the middle episode of Chan-wook Park’s ‘revenge trilogy.’ The cult following for this award-winner is easy to understand. The manner & control of Park’s dark violence is often stunningly laid out. (A big set piece in a long hallway where our hero/victim takes on dozens of attackers in a daring lateral tracking shot is a classic piece of kinetic cinema.) And there’s a weirdly likable nature to most of the characters, even the bad guys. A sort of cosmic comic mayhem that keeps you involved. Plus, the taut atmosphere that moves inexorably forward as Park parses his way thru gross-out material well beyond normal bounds. Swallowing a live baby octopus? Using a construction-sized wrench for a bit of tooth pulling torture? Office scissors to hack off a bit of tongue? Park’s your man. If only the story added up or, at least, the big ‘reveal’ at the climax paid off dramatically. We need something to be worth all the bother & bloodshed. His current production brings Park into the mainstream: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman & Mia Wasikowska in STOKER. Impressive; if only it weren’t another vampire pic.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

CHILDREN OF MEN (2006)

Post-Apocalyptic pics are a lot easier to swallow when they show up in action or slapstick form. The more serious your artistic response, the more likely you are to wind up with intellectual egg on your face. So credit Alfonso Cuarón for pulling off as much as he does helming this free adaptation of P. D. James futuristic warning shot. The year is 2027 and, reversing John Boorman’s (unintentionally?) hilarious ZARDOZ/’74, all the woman of the world have gone infertile. The last child was born more than 18 years ago. And in this brave new anarchic world, scruffy Clive Owen finds himself over-his-head , trying to protect the latest hope of humanity, a young, pregnant woman. The picaresque demands of the plot keep us from thinking too much about a plot that makes less & less sense as it goes along, and some of the supporting cast are good company (Michael Caine’s utter professionalism as an aging hippy is inspiring), but the world view is so relentlessly bleak that’s its hard to root for mankind. The film ends up making a nice case for throwing the baby out with the bathwater and letting nature start things all over again. Cuarón may have thought so, too; he hasn’t released a pic in six long years.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Hmm. A world where no one is younger than 18. Think how much better the movies would be!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: It’s hard to recommend something as looney as ZARDOZ, but try Woody Allen’s SLEEPER/'73 for a comic futurama or George Miller’s MAD MAX 1 or 2/’79,’81 with the young Mel Gibson for action.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

UNCERTAIN GLORY (1944)

With news on the war rapidly improving, Errol Flynn was able to turn out the most sober, least rah-rah-rah of his WWII vehicles. Joe May, an exiled helmer from UFA, probably came up with the gimmicky story of a career criminal in France who escapes the guillotine when an RAF bombing raid destroys his prison. He’s soon re-arrested by Inspector Paul Lukas, but on the way back they run into their new destiny: 100 Frenchman are to be executed unless a resistance saboteur is found. Flynn is going to die anyway; why not die for something? Or is this just another scam? The part is a perfect match for Flynn while Lukas manages the almost impossible job of making the longshot dramatic possibilities play out in believable fashion. Helmer Raoul Walsh shows he’s just as assured handling the story’s philosophical trimmings as he is with more action-oriented assignments though a dud ingenue defeats his best efforts. The film gathers impressive emotional power as it plays out and if it’s less ambitious or provocative than HANGMEN ALSO DIE/’43, a Fritz Lang/Bertold Brecht film with similar elements, it’s a lot less choppy.

NOTE: Be sure to watch the two classic WWII-themed Looney Tunes included: Frank Tashlin’s BROTHER BRAT with its striking Rosie the Riveter prologue; and Bob Clampett’s RUSSIAN RHAPSODY with all those ‘Gremlins from the Kremlin’ attacking Hitler on a bomb run. (Most of those gremlins are caricatures of the animation staff, plus one proto-Tweetie Pie.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

PETER AND THE WOLF (2006)

Suzie Templeton’s Oscar®-winning adaptation of Sergei Prokofiev’s classic concert piece is stunning, a masterpiece of Stop-Motion animation. Prokofiev’s 1930s visit to the Disney Studios inspired the score, but he couldn’t have been pleased with the cutesy version that appeared in MAKE MINE MUSIC/’46. (Did he ever see it?) The music is ‘arranged;’ Sterling Holloway’s narration is puerile; and both the tone & style have gone soft. It’s rarely revived. Templeton has reimagined & grounded the story, toughened up its narrative & psychology. The score doesn’t kick in for a good half reel, but then the music plays intact. We’re in a backwater town in contemporary Russia, and the season has been moved to winter. (Makes the wolf that much hungrier.) Peter is no longer a roly-poly pushover who lucks into his catch, but a willful, smart, stubborn outsider with something to prove to the roughneck townies, his over-protective Grandfather, as well as the wolf, especially when his pet duck is turned into lunch. (Disney gave the duck a reprieve.) The stop-motion work and the settings are remarkably handsome simply as artifacts, but combined with the music & the improved storyline, the sum is even greater than the fine parts. The rejiggered ending, which manages to be dangerous and politically correct, is flat-out thrilling. Templeton and her team show an eye & ear that honors Prokofiev by treating his work in a manner that’s as serious as it is modern, and fit for the grownup in all kids.

Available on the Magnolia DVD: A Collection of 2007 Academy Award Nominated SHORT FILMS - the other two animated pics also feature some fine Stop-Motion work, and the Live Action shorts are all watchable, if terribly conventional.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: There are dozens of recordings of the original Prokofiev score, but Baby-Boomer Movie Mavens might enjoy hearing the young Brandon de Wilde who made a recording in his MEMBER OF THE WEDDING/’52, SHANE/’53 cracked voice heyday. It’s with the Vienna Pro Musica/Hans Swarowsky in reasonable mid-‘50s mono.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAYII: Calling all baby boomers! Remember the old theme for Rocky & Bullwinkle? It’s a knock-off of Prokofiev’s theme for Peter, but ‘bent’ into heavy chromatic mode. As if it were only being played on the black keys. Cool.

ZEPPELIN (1971)

Farfetched, even idiotic, but this WWI espionage yarn is also good fun in its boyishly adventuresome way. In tone, it lands midway between THE GUNS OF NAVARONE/’61 and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC/’81; in execution, it’s minor league stuff at best. Michael York is suitably boyish as the British junior officer whose German lineage make him just the fellow to check out that new Zeppelin the Boche are building. Too bad about that touch of vertigo. But when a test run of the experimental ship turns into a commando raid on Scotland, York has to play navigator! Who’s side is this boy on? What are the Germans after? And will the Brits be too dense to decipher his messages? The early ‘70s production style has that unfortunate over-lit, over-processed look to it, but the effects are (mostly) convincing enough and playfully charming when they’re not. Once they’re flying, Elke Sommer helps out nicely as the pretty, young wife of the dirigible’s designer (Marius Goring) and as York’s serendipitous love interest. (Check out that steal from Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS/’46 when they almost get caught sending a wireless.)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

CREATION (2009)

There’s a fine story hiding-in-plain-sight in this tricked out pic on the creation of Charles Darwin’s epochal book. After decades of travel & observation, the actual writing & publishing of ON THE ORIGINS OF THE SPECIES was both a personal culmination & one of the defining scientific efforts of the 1800s. But there was also great personal drama attached to it; and filmable drama, at that. Darwin knew all the religious, cultural & scientific applecarts he’d be turning over, and he knew what it would do at home where his wife had turned against his work after the death of two children. But the script overloads the situation, ‘solving’ the story with maudlin Victoriana & metaphysics out of THE SIXTH SENSE. (Or is it CASPER?) Paul Bettany & Jennifer Connelly should be fine as the Darwins, but helmer Jon Amiel is unable to coax more than a couple of facial expressions out of each. A few charming flashbacks illustrate Darwin’s genius at storytelling, but attempts at showing the Darwin clan as naturalists just looks too cute for words, even when the fox grabs the rabbit by the neck. Fortunately, just when the film threatens to collapse, the great Bill Paterson shows up as a sort of whacked-out water therapist/psychologist to play a couple of riveting scenes with Bettany that show all too clearly what’s missing elsewhere.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Why not pick up ON THE ORIGINS OF THE SPECIES? Next to Freud, Darwin must be the most 'readable' of all the great scientists.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Or . . . forget Darwin entirely and pick up a great Bill Paterson film, the best Christmas pic you've never heard of, Bill Forsyth's COMFORT AND JOY/'84.

Friday, March 4, 2011

MOULIN ROUGE (1952)

Josë Ferrer went on his knees to star in this John Huston bio-pic on Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. It starts well with a two-reel prologue that recreates an evening’s entertainment at the Moulin Rouge. Milling crowds in the galleries; dandies at little tables by the stage floor; hardworking waiters; then the specialty acts, great stars we still recognize from the famous posters and dancing girls to ring out the night with the can-can. It’s wonderful stuff, beautifully choreographed by Huston, and atmospherically lit by Oswald Morris, as if the gaslight’s sfumato had never cleared. A tourist’s view, perhaps, but with a guide who knows the best spots. Then, the musicians stop the Offenbach & the Georges Auric tunes and a short crippled man walks down the painterly streets of Paris . . . and straight into a deeply unconvincing, even banal story about the ugly, cynical artist & the guttersnipe tart. But all is not lost, the film is still loaded with lovely things to see, including some fine montages of real Lautrec, and a brief & brilliant deathbed coda where old friends return in a dream show. With a radiant Zsa Zsa Gabor playing the great Jane Avril and making up for her inept lip-synching by bidding Toulouse a blunt, but terribly funny farewell. It’s a wonderful way to go.

DOUBLE-BILL: For an insider’s look at the era, without the filtered color, try Jean Renoir’s deeply moving & grandly entertaining FRENCH CAN-CAN/’55.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

PUSHOVER (1954)

The double-helix plot is the best part of this cleverly worked up suspenser. Fred MacMurray’s a cop who not only runs a stakeout on bank robber moll Kim Novak, he’s also dating her. It’s all part of a police scam to recover the loot when her boyfriend comes back to town. But the plan goes awry when Kim ‘makes’ Fred as a cop and convinces him to steal the cash for the two of them. But there are complications, in particular, MacMurray’s police partner at the stakeout, Phil Carey. He’s a straight-arrow sort, though not averse to turning his binoculars toward the apartment just to the right of Novak’s where Dorothy Malone lives. Malone’s still a brunette here and a real sweetie-pie who becomes inadvertently involved in all the deceptions. She all but steals the pic. Richard Quine, who's mostly remembered for helming comedies, does good work here, neatly organizing all the moving pieces, and tackling the logistical nightmare of a tricky third act with multiple POVs without breaking a sweat. Yet, the film doesn’t quite come off. The strong resemblances to DOUBLE INDEMNITY/’44 and to the just released REAR WINDOW do it no favors. But the main problem comes from the lack of heat (or even rapport) between Novak & MacMurray. We can’t buy into his actions unless we feel the big passion between these two. And it just isn’t there. In fact, Novak is so vacuous in her debut, there’s pretty much no there there. And the painfully flat score from Arthur Morton is like a nail in the coffin.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: John Badham's STAKEOUT, a big hit in '87 with Richard Dreyfuss, Emilio Estevez & Madeleine Stowe, is all but forgotten. See if it holds up & report back.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

NIGHTFALL (1957)

Aldo Ray, with his big paws & scratchy voice, is the innocent man on the run in this exceptionally well-made film noir from one of the form’s masters, Jacques Tourneur (OUT OF THE PAST/’47). Following a line of action that recalls Nicholas Ray’s ON DANGEROUS GROUND/’51, the story moves from the anonymous threat of the city’s dark streets & bright lights, toward a clean, wintry, individualized death amid mountains & running streams, all stunningly captured under Burnett Guffey’s lens. The film’s skimpy budget leaves a few sequences undernourished (a set piece at a fashion show only touches its potential) and a few plot turns are right out of screwball comedy (the bank robbers take the wrong little black bag), but Stirling Silliphant’s script has lots of goosy lines to savor plus character(s) to spare. Anne Bancroft looks great in one of her best early roles as a model who ‘chats up’ a guy at a bar and winds up running for her life. While Brian Keith & particularly Rudy Bond are darn scary as the bank robbers (pure psychotic 'id') who think Aldo Ray will tell them where the cash is hidden if they politely break his legs before they ask.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

MISSION TO MOSCOW (1944)

This infamous title from Warner Bros., the most extreme, inaccurate & colossal of the Hollywood WWII propaganda pics, is little seen these days and only remembered for whitewashing Stalinist Russia. (And from its use at Red-baiting congressional hearings in the lead-up to the McCarthy blacklist era.*) That’s a shame, because it's quite a show, and in the context of world events in ‘43, its slanted attitudes are easily understood, though its recap of the Moscow political ‘purge trials’ can still cause gasps. (And shudders since we now know what Stalin had in store not only for the railroaded ‘guilty’ defendants, but also, down the line, for the prosecutors, judges, witnesses & spectators!) But the film does reflect much of the realpolitik of its time, as well as the leaping naivete of the book’s author, Ambassador Joseph Davies. Viewed with a bit of historical perspective, it's both fascinating as a ‘found object’ and, not incidentally, quite exceptional as sheer moviemaking. No big Warners stars here, but what a cast of character actors! Just spotting favorites like Gene Lockhart as Molotov, Henry Daniels as Ribbentrop & Oscar Homolka as Litvinov make it worth a look; as does the skill & technical assurance that runs all thru the pic. Why not with Michael Curtiz helming, Howard Koch on the script & Max Steiner composing the score? Their last collaboration was CASABLANCA/’42. Even at its most appalling, the film is unmissable, and with its mix of real footage & studio recreations, a lesson in state-of-the-art production methods of the time.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Make it Commie-Pinko Night in Hollywood with Sam Goldwyn's THE NORTH STAR/'43; and learn how today's ally can become tomorrow's deadly rival.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: After his first meeting with Putin, George Bush famously said, ‘I looked the man in the eye and was able to get a sense of his soul.’ so, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to judge the much maligned Ambassador Davies.